MISSOULA — Eric Barriere’s first time learning about death came when he was 7 years old.

The Eastern Washington quarterback, now 23, was living in southern California at the time. He was playing outside his house with some of his family and friends when he and some of them called it quits early to go inside to watch WWE Friday Night SmackDown.

“I want to say maybe 10-15 minutes later, gunshots started going off, and he ended up getting killed,” Barriere recalled of his older friend who lived across the street.

It was hard to comprehend at that age that someone he knew so well was gone.

“I just started crying and stuff and started doing pushups and little stuff like that because we was so upset that that stuff had happened to him and wanted to do stuff," Barriere said. "Just little kids not knowing. Just life.”

Everything that Barriere has accomplished on the field — namely, being an All-American quarterback who has led a national runner-up team and whose Eagles host Montana in a top-6 showdown on ESPN2 — could’ve been stolen that day. Or it could’ve been prematurely ripped away during one of at least two other times where he almost died as a kid.

Barriere was measured in what he shared about his childhood. One thing he wasn’t shy about is his love for his mother, Renita, and how much she impacted him while largely raising him solo. They text or call almost every day. She provides words of encouragement. She’s the person he most trusts.

Their relationship grew so strong because of the struggles they went through together in Inglewood, California, what was then a crime-ridden part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

“For me, it was good and bad because my mom, she kept me away from all the negativity that was outside of me in my surroundings, so that was a plus just having the right support system and having my mom making sure that I wasn't doing other things that I wasn’t supposed to be doing, so that was the good thing about it,” he said.

“But the bad part was just even though my mom can do so much, but when I’m outside of her perimeter, you never know what could happen and different things like that. As a kid, for me, I had to learn young and learn about different things about life and death at an early age.”

For all the on-field accomplishments, Barriere said his mom is most impressed that he earned his bachelor’s degree in communications. He’s now a first-generation college graduate in his family.

He might just play himself into an opportunity at pro football after he concludes his final season at Eastern Washington this fall. Whatever transpires, he wants to use the opportunities he has in life to help kids in the community, like possibly starting a YMCA.

“Growing up where I’m from, gang banging is really huge in California and especially in L.A.,” he said. “I just tried to not go down that path and make sure that I did the right things and not the wrong things. Just looking at all the negativity around me and knowing that one day I want to be that positive person and I want to be a change in my environment.”

Mom knows best

Barriere experienced a much closer brush with death when he was around 10 while playing outside with friends.

“It was two cars beside me, and I was getting ready to cross the other street, but I couldn’t see because the car was so big to my left that I couldn’t really see ahead of me,” he recalled. “As soon as I stepped out in the street, a car was flying down the middle of the street and smacked me. My friend said I did like three or four backflips.”

He remembers having to wear a cast from his knee to his foot. The injury came outside of football season, so he didn’t have to miss time. At least he was still able to play football, let alone walk.

Football wasn’t even a sport Barriere wanted to play as a kid. He would be enthralled watching Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and playing Madden video games, but he really loved baseball. His path in football began one day at a friend’s house when he was 7 or 8.

“I tried to tackle him, and I felt the contact on the shoulder pads, and I instantly took all the pads off and started crying and went back home,” he said. “My mom was confused and asking what was wrong. That’s when she signed me up for football.

“I wasn’t really feeing football because I remember that was my first year ever, and I remember doing a bunch of bear crawls, freaking running a lot and stuff that I wasn’t used to just from playing baseball. It was at a point in time when I didn’t like it and wanted to quit, but my mom, she just told me to stick with it because she knew football was a physical sport, so I think it just made me tougher.”

Once on the field, Barriere’s athletic ability was nearly unmatched. He became a quarterback full time in eighth grade after being a running back and safety showing off his speed.

Barriere was an electric athlete who could’ve beaten teams with his feet, but a youth football coach, Marvin Wheeler, forced him to throw the football, whether he was inside or outside the pocket. It sped up his development and is evident in the deep, accurate passes he’s made at the college level.

Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best learned about Barrier’s life story during their conversations over the years. Best has set up a weekly meeting with each quarterback where the two of them would talk for 15 to 30 minutes to begin to develop a bond of trust after he was promoted from offensive coordinator. The one rule was they couldn’t talk about football.

The stories exchanged are between them, but Best recalled a special moment when he called Barriere in February 2017, soon after his promotion. He and other coaches were on trip to the University of Florida to learn from Gators head coach Jim McElwain, a former Eastern Washington quarterback and Missoula native.

Once of their lessons was learning how to prepare a backup to take over the starter’s role when the time comes. The key words Best relayed to Barriere: ‘preparation’ and ‘patience.’

“I took some time out while standing next to Tim Tebow’s Heisman (statue) and thought, ‘Eric Barriere is this type of caliber player in terms of being the best at our level,’” Best recalled. “He may believe that now, but he hadn’t been able to show that yet because he hadn’t stepped on the field.

“Wouldn’t you know, mid 2018, Gage Gubrud gets hurt, and we don’t miss a beat. We actually probably take a couple steps forward in that moment because he had prepared himself off the field to be ready for when he got the chance on the field. I’ll never forget those conversations, that one in particular.”

It was around that time of Barriere’s first start that he decided to get a tattoo of his mother. He also got one of his sister, Tajinia, another special person in his life. He was her guardian, watching out for her when his mother had to be somewhere else.

The tattoo of his mother sits on his right forearm, and his sister is on his bicep. They’re both with him on every pass he throws.

“I just think I would never have been a huge tattoo guy,” he said. “But I feel like if I wanted to get a tattoo, I wanted it to be something meaningful and something I actually care about and just not do the typical, you know how some people just get a Bible verse or different things like that when they not even really into the Bible or spiritual like that.

“I didn’t want to do anything like that. I wanted my tattoos to be meaningful. Just everything that I get is just a timeline of just maybe how I’m feeling or somebody that impacted my life.”

Speaking volumes

Barriere’s memories from his first brush with death come from what his mother has told him.

He had dealt with severe asthma from a young age and once had to be rushed to the hospital. He was put in a Code Blue, a life-or-death emergency requiring a patient to be resuscitated.

“With my asthma, my heart and everything had stopped because I had a real bad asthma attack, and doctors had to bring me back,” he said.

Barriere had to use an inhaler growing up. His asthma began to clear up over the years, and he doesn’t notice it much, if at all, anymore. It would be hard to tell he once dealt with a breathing issue given how effortless his athleticism looks on the field.

He’s no longer short of breath or short of words. Barriere had long been a quiet kid. He can still be from time to time. His high school coach, Frank Mazzotta at La Habra High School in La Habra, California, reflects on one of his initial impressions of Barriere, who joined the varsity team as a sophomore.

“We’re having a quarterback meeting and offensive meetings installing stuff in the spring, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man is he even listening?’ He didn’t say anything,” Mazzotta recalled. “And then you go to the field, and it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, he’s definitely paying attention.’ Just really smart. He picks things up so fast. He was a pleasure. All that talent to be packaged in such a good kid, a good person, football smart, the whole thing.”

Best has also been impressed by Barriere’s awareness of his surroundings. Whether their conversations were about defensive coverages or life in general, Barriere has a penchant for absorbing and processing information as he’s always trying to learn.

Yet, for as quiet of a person Barriere is off the field personality-wise, his play on the field speaks volumes.

“He’s a very talented player, but a lot of people don’t see the talented person,” Best said. “He took the teachings and applied them. As much as you want to give credit to all of the people that helped him along the way, you’ve got to give some of the credit to him because he took the teaching, took his talents and mixed them both.

“He’s playing at a high level and has always been a great person at a high level. He’ll be a great father. He’s already a great son, great brother, and I consider him a great friend. I’ll always answer his call, and I’m pretty sure he’ll always answer my call. We’ll have a connection long after his career’s done here.”

Barriere became somewhat of a minor celebrity around L.A. when he led La Habra to the 2015 state championship as a senior. Mazzotta didn’t see that change him as he remained the same humble kid, even as he was featured on television and invited to awards banquets.

That humility is a trait Best has seen from Barriere, even as he’s finished second and fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS. How he’s handled himself despite the success has made him a fan favorite, especially with Best’s children.

“When you’re idolized not just on the field by youngsters and young kids, when you’re idolized off the field by doing community service, hugs and smiles and winks, that’s where you know you’ve done a good job as a parent and as a coach and they took the teachings,” Best said.

As Barriere reflects on his path, it’s made him who he is today. He's grateful to have such a supportive mother who kept him grounded along the way.

That he’s still around today is the most important thing.

“Just realizing that I’m still here and I’m still breathing, it’s definitely something that I’m appreciative because you can’t take life for granted,” he said. “So, I just try to take every day not for granted and go out there and live like you never know what can happen.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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